Early in Tuesday's episode of "American Idol," the judges, joined by KISS frontman Gene Simmons, got into an argument about whether they were judging singer Bobby Barfoot by his image (he was kind of chunky, with messy, curly hair) or his voice (he ... yodeled).
To settle the argument, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell asked the young man to disappear behind a screen and sing from there. Apparently once he was out of their sight, they felt they'd be able to sit back and judge his voice on its own accord. "It's the image," Paula kept saying.
Screen or no screen, the guy was a yodeler. Bobby's voice wasn't strong enough to make it to Hollywood, even if his looks were removed from the equation. (Simon mentioned something about Bobby's voice sounding like he'd been sucking on helium, an apt description.)
But what the little screen test proved more than anything was that image doesn't matter in "American Idol." But not for the reasons you might think. "Image" doesn't matter because all "American Idol" finalists and winners eventually will receive the very same image, one that's prepackaged and sanitized for your protection, as commercial and mass-marketed as a Twinkie.
There are certain "American Idol" boxes into which judges are eager to put contenders. Girls might fit into the sexy looker box, the wholesome ingenue box, or the brassy diva box. Guys generally choose the clean-cut Archie Andrews box, but the soulful whatever-the-male-version of-a-diva-is box is also open. As anyone who's ever seen the Johnny Bravo episode of "The Brady Bunch" knows all too well, you have to, as Greg did, "fit the suit."
Auditioners wrongly seem to believe that if they can stand out from the mass of humanity that crowds the "Idol" auditions, they stand a good chance of either making it through to the judges or going beyond that and somehow impressing the judges with a unique look.
But instead of spending money on bright hair dye or a unique outfit, these would-be "Idols" would do better to buy themselves a couple of months of voice lessons. There is an occasional box for a singer who goes his or her own way, but eventually, that image wears out its welcome. John Stevens' Teen Martin image felt refreshing and different when put up against so many other pop wannabes, but eventually, he just outlasted his natural vocal talents.
Flailing for individualityTuesday night, Texan Daron Beck threw a variety of images into his audition. He had a John Waters-style moustache, a bit of Johnny Depp crossed with an old melodrama villain in his hairstyle, and a suit with a red pocket square that was last seen on the old guy pictured on Monopoly cards. Before launching into an odd version of Tom Jones' "Delilah," he announced with a completely straight face that he wanted to be the American Idol in order to "change the music industry." Apparently part of his plan for changing the industry involved a form of music where singers stop in the middle of a song to ... bark? Cough? It wasn't quite clear.
The judges couldn't figure Daron out either. Simon suggested he'd be best off in a cabaret, wearing "ladies underwear and red lipstick." In a classic bit of personal understatement, Gene Simmons told him "peculiar is a good way to make a living. I'm peculiar," but also informed him he wasn't "right for this."
And the Demon was right, of course, Daron wasn't right for "Idol," nor was nerdy movie projectionist Robert Solomon, who screamed "Dancing in the Streets" and never got within a mile of the correct key. "It doesn't matter what you wear, just as long as you are there!" he screeched.
But in "Idol" auditions, it does matter what you wear. Lovely Lindsay Cardenelli has a solid voice (Paula Abdul called it "hypnotic"), but she was also smart enough to show off a lovely figure draped in two lace tank tops.
Jeffrey Johnson, who stopped for a prayer with other hopefuls before his audition, also has a solid voice. And it fits his image — he's in the ministry, and the beads and dancehalls of New Orleans were a shock to him.
Gene Simmons, of all people, gently tried to nudge him towards country music, warning him that rock and roll's focus on sexuality would contradict his religious focus. But Simon Cowell, as he so often does, spoke the truth, saying "The public will love this guy." And they will. Cleancut, polite, nonthreatening, yet with an edge of soulfulness to his voice, Johnson is an early pick to be the next John Stevens in this year's competition.
A story helps
For auditioners unsure of which "Idol" box to fit into, it helps to have a good story.
Pursuing a life in the ministry makes for a good story, as does living on a farm, as Carrie Underwood proved last week. Both those candidates had good voices, yes, but so did more than a dozen others this week who made it through to Hollywood, yet didn't have their auditions shown on TV.
A New Orleans candidate named Michael had a great story. His parents, both singers, had met when his mother had stormed out of the club she had been working at, seeking a new job at the very club where her husband-to-be was working. And Michael, a large fellow, was incredibly polite and friendly to the judges, choosing the great song "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"
He kind of shouted the words, the volume veering as if a small child had hold of a volume knob and was spinning it from left to right with abandon. But neither Paula nor Randy could hear this, apparently, or maybe Michael's charm had them swayed. Against Simon's wishes, they put him through.
In addition to being polite and personable, Michael is a large fellow, built along the Ruben Studdard mode. That's acceptable for a male contestant on "Idol." But even a few extra pounds on a female contestant are grounds for dismissal.
Just ask the goofy, pink-clad triplets who sang last week. Simon bluntly told them they were all overweight. OK, but their problem was not the weight, but that they were trying to dress in the "Idol" sexy looker mold, and the weight was no help to them. Oddly, not one of them called Simon out when he mentioned the weight problem, never pointing out that Ruben had won the whole thing with more than a few extra pounds.
One singer on Tuesday night's show, dreadlocked David Brown, had the shyness and strong religious background the show loves, but more than that, he had a solid, soaring voice.
"The real ones, they don't need to do nothing but sing," said Randy Jackson in his endorsement of Brown. But longtime "Idol" watchers know that's about as untrue as a statement can get.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor